Frida Berrigan reading a book to her son Seamus and daughter Madeline. (WNV / Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer)
By Frida Berrigan / 07.28.2016
What is your happy place? An odd question for a time marked by sad places — a dance floor slick with blood, a barely seaworthy vessel crammed with people fleeing deprivation, a bullet-ridden intersection, anywhere Donald Trump stands.
Is it OK to have a happy place amid so much sorrow and outrage?
Do you want to hear my happy place? Sitting on the couch on our front porch with the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle, pen poised to write in an answer, confident that it is correct, reassured by a gentle burble of kids playing in the background. Do you have a happy place? Is that OK? That is the question that most often disturbs my fleeting moments of contentment. Is it OK that I am content, just for this minute, just in this space and time?
Can I draw power from this space and commit to working to make room for others’ contentment? Can my experience of joy require no one’s suffering or exploitation? I ask because these are not neutral terms.
Happiness and contentment, comfort and ease, security and peace of mind — these are no longer just occasional happy accidents of right living and hard work. They are commodities, being aggressively marketed to us under countless trade names. They are enshrined as rights for some of us — those of us who are white and born in the United States and extended the credit to buy them. For these reasons, a question like “What is your happy place?” made my father’s lip curl.
But it is a human question. That moment of appreciation, contentment. It is just a moment and might only come every once in a while — like months might go by. And I miss it sometimes. The circumstances might all be the same — the couch, the puzzle, the right answer, harmony among the children — by my mind is wrong. I’m always racing ahead, thinking about what “has” to get done, feeling transgressive for sitting still and doing “nothing.” The moment — the happy place — squandered.
“You are too happy,” a man once said to me. “You are talking about nuclear weapons and the end of everything, and you are smiling.” He was frustrated. I was taking questions at a public library in a small town in Wisconsin at the end of a presentation about nuclear weapons and the hard work ahead for disarmament. I was not sure how to respond. “Sorry,” I mumbled, and tried to look more stern and professorial.
It was years ago, but I could probably give the exact same talk today — just update the total problem by adding some zeroes.
I remember shaking myself free and went on to say something to this effect: I am not happy to be talking about nuclear weapons. I am not making light of the issue. But I am happy. I am happy that all of you came out on a week night to learn more about this issue. I am happy because it is a measure of your concern and commitment that you are here. I am happy because you did not run out screaming as I described the topography of tough work ahead. I am smiling because you care. I am smiling because I mastered and accurately conveyed a welter of facts and figures and managed to keep you awake while I did it. And, finally, I am smiling because I am far from home — but among new friends — and what a special feeling!
Ta da! Happiness, not for sale and gloriously present even among talk of nuclear weapons and the withering judgement of the left.
That interaction was a long time ago, but I recall it often, now that I am less in the public eye and less accountable for my joy. Ah yes, a joy constantly under assault not by “lefter than thou” grumpy activists, but by sleeplessness, impatience, my children’s petty squabbles and quotidian domestic concerns — and the harrowing, gruesome, maddening bad news that comes at us from every corner.
“I gotta go to my happy place!” It can connote escape: A loud “la la la” that drowns out the cries for help or the demands for justice. But it does not have to be that way. A “happy place” can also be a recharge, a reminder of what peace is and what humans can be.
So, it’s summer, and I now have several happy places. There’s our community garden, which is tended by old white ladies and youth of color, where kids of all shades and backgrounds revel in their common pursuit of dirt, water and bugs. There’s beach bootcamp exercise class, where a group of mostly middle-aged women (and one man) run up and down the busy town beach and do Carl Lewis lunges to the entertainment of all the sunbathers. There’s the house our Unitarian Universalist church bought to house Syrian refugees, as they settle into life in the strange new terrain of Southeastern Connecticut. And, finally, there’s the place amid the tumble of three sets of limbs — two short and stubby, one long and lean, all scuffed and scabbed and a little sunburned — where I read Seven Silly Eaters for the 888th time.